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Complete Guide to Estate Planning

Planning your estate is easier than you may think. Learn the essentials to estate planning and create personalized estate and health care documents to ensure you and your loved ones are protected.

Essential estate planning documents

Our most commonly used estate planning documents trusted by users around the world every single day.

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Step 1

Power of Attorney

A Power of Attorney is a document which gives another party the legal authority to act on your behalf in order to manage your legal and financial affa...

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Step 2

Last Will & Testament

A Last Will and Testament allows you to specify how you would like your property and assets divided after your death.

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Step 3

Personal Directive

A Living Will or Health Care Directive allows you to specify your health care treatment preferences should you no longer be able to make medical decis...

Last updated May 10, 2023

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Whether you have a large or small estate, creating a plan for its distribution after your death will save your loved ones from the grief of wondering what to do.

Though, estate planning isn’t just about dealing with your legacy after death.

Imagine yourself incapacitated—unable to speak or make sound decisions. Do you have someone lined up to manage your finances or family affairs? Does that person have a set of clear instructions to follow when acting on your behalf?

This guide takes you through a step-by-step process for planning your estate. From creating a Last Will and Testament to delegating agents that respect your wishes, we break down the essential documents you’ll need for creating an effective estate plan.

Planning your estate

Nearly everyone has an estate, even if it’s just one bank account.

Your estate consists of everything you currently own: your house, car, possessions, money—and, yes, even your debts. You must consider all of these things when creating your estate plan.

Estate planning is the process of determining the maintenance, management, and distribution of your assets when you pass away or become incapacitated.

Whether you’re single or married, have a few assets or a wealthy business, everyone can benefit from an estate plan. The documents in your estate plan will be crucial for your beneficiaries and estate administrators. By creating your estate plans early, you can:

What’s in an estate plan?

Each person’s estate plan will be unique to their situation and desires. However, the following items are examples of the “must-haves” of a typical estate plan:

  • A person with the legal authority to make decisions on your behalf
  • Instructions for the management of your assets and debts
  • An outline of your desired health care
  • Wishes for after you pass away

To achieve these estate planning goals, you can use these legal documents:

We’ll go through each of these documents in more detail later on. We’ll also discuss complementary documents that you can add to your estate plan. The more information there is for those representing you, the easier it is for them to quickly and accurately adhere to your wishes.

So let’s get started.

Step 1: Set your estate planning goals

Take a step back and look at what you’ve achieved so far in your life. How do you want people to take care of you as you age? What do you want to happen to your assets once you’re gone? Who do you need to take care of?

Having focused goals for your estate plan to accomplish will help you draft the proper documents. For example, common estate planning goals include:

  • Specifying your healthcare preferences as you age or fall ill
  • Requesting specific funeral arrangements
  • Choosing the beneficiaries of your estate
  • Ensuring financial support for your family
  • Naming guardians for any dependent children
  • Dictating the future management of a business
  • Donating a legacy gift to a charity

Once you’ve identified goals, you’ll need to figure out how your estate can achieve them and what legal hurdles may stand in the way. 

Step 2: Document your assets and debt

Typically, a Last Will and Testament is the first document people add to their estate plan. But, before planning to distribute your assets, you’ll need to know what you’re working with.

Once you settle any outstanding debts and distribute specific gifts, your residuary estate (i.e., the amount of assets, property, and money leftover) is what you can distribute to your beneficiaries. Before writing a Last Will and Testament, it can help to estimate your residuary estate.

Create a list of your debt

Estate administrators will use your assets to clear any outstanding debt before passing on any inheritances. As such, it’s important to keep your debt in mind when anticipating how much you can leave to others.

Debt can include:

  • Credit card balances
  • Student loans
  • Vehicle loans
  • Mortgages
  • Home equity lines of credit

Create a list of your assets

Assets are anything you own that has financial value. In your estate plan, you can leave your assets to your beneficiaries after you pass away.

Compile a list of your physical and financial assets and weigh them against your debt.

Physical assets include material things, such as:

  • Land, houses, and other real estate
  • Cars, boats, and other vehicles
  • Personal valuables (e.g., books, jewellery, tools, and furniture)
  • Collectibles (e.g., art, coins, stamps, trading cards, and antiques)

Financial assets include things that may not have a physical form and can be readily converted into cash, such as:

  • Bonds, stocks, and mutual funds
  • Money in bank accounts or trusts
  • Business shares
  • Retirement plans
  • Life insurance

Make a note of anything you wish to give to a beneficiary specifically. This helps ensure it won't be sold to cover any outstanding debts you may have.

Estimate the value of your estate

After creating a list, subtract your total debt from the full value of your assets. The remainder is what you have left to distribute to beneficiaries in your Last Will and Testament.

Remember that this value can change as your financial situation changes, which is why it’s important to update your Will after gaining or losing a significant amount of wealth. 

Step 3: Learn your jurisdiction’s estate tax laws

In addition to clearing your debts, estate administrators will pay applicable taxes, funeral costs, and probate fees. As such, it’s good to have a sense of the estate tax laws in your province or territory for a clearer estimate of your estate.

Provincial and territorial governments regulate the distribution of a deceased person’s estate, and these laws can vary by jurisdiction. For example, Ontario charges an estate administration tax (calculated as a percentage of the estate’s total value), while other provinces may charge a flat probate fee.

Finally, your representatives will need to file a federal tax return for your last year of life. Keep in mind that there are multiple sources of taxable income that may apply after death.

In some cases, the income tax after death may add up to be more than probate costs. To reduce the taxes and other fees payable at death, consider talking with an estate lawyer. You may be able to manage your assets to maximize the amount that goes to your beneficiaries.

To learn more about the laws that govern estates in your jurisdiction, you can read the following legislation.

Jurisdiction Legislation

Estate Administration Act, and the Wills and Succession Act

British Columbia

Wills, Estates, and Succession Act


The Wills Act and the Family Property Act


 Devolution of Estate Act, the Wills Act, and the Probate Court Act


Wills Act, and the Probate, Administrations, and Guardianship Rules

Northwest Territories

Wills Act

Nova Scotia

Wills Act and the Probate Act


Wills Act and the Probate, Administrations and Guardianship Rules


Estates Act, and the Succession Law Reform Act

Prince Edward Island

Probate Act


Succession Duties Act and the Civil Code of Quebec 


Administration of Estates Act


Estate Administration Act


Step 4: Create your Last Will and Testament

A Last Will and Testament allows you to control the distribution of your estate after you pass away. It's the document in your estate plan with the most authority. Probate courts (the segment of the court system that handles wills and estates) use your Last Will as a guide when settling your estate.

A Last Will is also the document you need to appoint a guardian for your minor children, set aside money to care for any pets you leave behind, and leave assets to your beneficiaries.

If you have high-valued property or a significant amount of assets, a Living Trust and Pour-Over Will may better suit your needs.

Why is a Last Will and Testament important?

A Last Will and Testament helps keep control of your estate in your hands and ensure that your wishes are met after you pass away. It also ensures that your minor children end up in the care of the guardian you choose rather than someone appointed by the government.

Without a Last Will, your estate gets distributed according to the estate laws of your province or territory.

If you die intestate (i.e., without a valid Will) the government appoints a personal representative to oversee the distribution of your estate. Keep in mind that any person with an interest in your estate can apply to the court for this role.

Furthermore, court administrators distribute your assets by following a predetermined formula. Inheritances typically go to your surviving family members, regardless of whether you had an amicable relationship with them or not.

If you die intestate and have no living relatives, the government collects your property.

What’s an executor and why are they important?

The executor of your estate is the person you appoint in your Last Will and Testament to carry out your final instructions. This person is legally bound to administer your Will.

Choosing the right executor may be challenging, but it’s a crucial decision because your executor bears a large responsibility on your behalf. This person should be someone you trust, who understands their duties and is willing to act as your personal representative. You can appoint your spouse, a friend, a relative, or a professional (like your lawyer or accountant) to be your executor.

An executor’s duties may include:

  • Distributing your property and assets to your beneficiaries
  • Repaying your debts with money from your estate
  • Recovering money other parties may owe you
  • Filing necessary forms (including your final tax return)
  • Managing your business as directed

Step 5: Create your Power of Attorney

While a Last Will gives instructions for managing your affairs after you pass away, a Power of Attorney (POA) gives someone the authority to manage aspects of your estate while you’re still alive.

In this case, your appointed representative (also called an attorney-in-fact or agent) can make decisions about your finances, property, business, and more on your behalf. Although, if you don’t want to grant general authority, you can specify which powers your attorney-in-fact has.

A Power of Attorney can be either ordinary or enduring. An Ordinary POA ends on a specified date or if you become mentally incapacitated, while an Enduring POA ends when you die.

A Power of Attorney is particularly helpful when you:

  • Expect to be out of the country for extended periods of time
  • Need someone to manage your business when you’re absent
  • Work in an environment with a high risk for incapacitation
  • Wish to set limits on the handling of your estate if you’re incapacitated
  • Have a medical condition that can affect your ability to make decisions

Choosing your attorney-in-fact is just as important as choosing the executor of your Will. This is because your attorney-in-fact can have considerable decision-making power over matters concerning your estate.

In most jurisdictions, your attorney-in-fact will have legislated duties, including the duty to make decisions that protect your best interests.

To learn more about the laws that govern POAs in your jurisdiction, you can talk to a lawyer or refer to the following acts.

Jurisdiction Legislation
Alberta Powers of Attorney Act
British Columbia Powers of Attorney Act, its Regulations, and the Representation Agreement Act
Manitoba Powers of Attorney Act
Newbrunswick Enduring Powers of Attorney Act and its Regulations
Newfoundland Enduring Powers of Attorney Act
Northwest Territories Powers of Attorney Act
Nova Scotia Powers of Attorney Act
Nunavut Powers of Attorney Act 
Ontario Substitute Decisions Act
Prince Edward Island Powers of Attorney Act 
Quebec Special Rules Governing Protection Mandates according to the Civil Code of Quebec
Saskatchewan Powers of Attorney Act 
Yukon Enduring Power of Attorney Act and the Adult Protection and Decision-Making Act

Step 6: Create your Health Care Directive

A Health Care Directive, also known as a Personal Directive or Advance Directive, allows you to document your preferences for medical treatments and decisions. Documenting your medical preferences is essential if an emergency situation or a debilitating disease were to leave you incompetent or incapacitated.

The truth is that life is unexpected. For instance, a traffic collision could occur suddenly and leave you seriously injured. On the other hand, you could get diagnosed with a mental illness, such as dementia, that takes years to claim your cognizance. In any case, having a Health Care Directive will ensure your wishes are followed.

Use LawDepot’s Health Care Directive to specify your ideal treatments when the unexpected happens:

  • Terminal illness
  • Persistent unconsciousness
  • Severe and permanent mental incompetence

You can also use your Directive to give someone the authority to make medical decisions on your behalf. By appointing a representative, you get the chance to talk about your medical preferences with someone you trust before it’s too late.  

Depending on your jurisdiction, you may need a separate form such as a Representation Agreement or a Power of Attorney for Personal Care to appoint a substitute decision-maker.

Use LawDepot’s Health Care Directive template and we’ll provide the forms required to appoint a medical proxy in your province or territory. This way, you can take care of all your healthcare planning in one go.

What does a Health Care Directive cover?

A Health Care Directive outlines the types of medical care you want if you’re in a terminal condition, permanent coma, or persistent vegetative state. The types of medical care you may want if in these conditions include:

  • Comfort care: This addresses treatment with the sole objective of relieving pain. It may lengthen or shorten your life and doesn’t include artificially administered food and water.
  • Life support: This is any life-prolonging procedure that helps to restore, replace, or maintain a spontaneous and vital bodily function (e.g., assistance with maintaining breathing or blood pressure).
  • Tube feeding: This is when you receive food, water, and medicine through a tube directly attached to your stomach or small intestine.

If you use your Health Care Directive to appoint a personal representative, the form will also contain their details and contact information. This is so medical personnel know how to contact the person you’ve entrusted to make decisions on your behalf during an emergency.

To learn more about the laws that govern health care planning in your jurisdiction, you can refer to the following legislation.

Jurisdiction Legislation
Alberta Personal Directives Act
British Columbia Health Care (Consent) and Care Facility (Admission) Act and the Representation Agreement Act
Manitoba Health Care Directives Act
New Brunswick Enduring Powers of Attorney Act
Newfoundland Advance Health Care Directives Act
Northwest Territories Personal Directives Act
Nova Scotia Personal Directives Act
Nunavut Nunavut doesn’t currently legislate health directives
Ontario Health Care Consent Act and the Substitute Decisions Act
Prince Edward Island Consent to Treatment and Health Care Act
Quebec Act Respecting End-Of-Life-Care
Saskatchewan The Health Care Directives and Substitute Health Care Decision Makers Act, 2015
Yukon Care Consent Act


Step 7: Create your End-of-Life Plan

Imagine planning one last party to celebrate yourself—except this isn’t a birthday party, it’s your funeral. Yes, funerals can be depressing, but they don’t have to be. Writing an End-Of-Life Plan is your chance to edit the final chapter in the story of your life.

You can save your loved ones some trouble when they’re already grieving your loss. Use our template for an End-Of-Life Plan to quickly and easily outline your wishes for funeral services and what to do with your remains.  

This is an opportunity to get creative. Is there a special way you want your family and friends to send you off into the spirit world? Do you want to donate your organs? What final things do you want to say? Our template prompts you to include all this and more, making it easier on the people trying to manage and close your estate during an otherwise difficult time.

Think about these things in advance so your family doesn’t have to worry about it:

  • Your idea for a funeral or memorial service
  • What to do with your body (e.g., burial, entombment, cremation, or donation to science)
  • Who you want to carry out your final wishes (usually the executor appointed in your Last Will and Testament)
  • Whether you want to publish a death notice or obituary
  • If you want to donate your organs (don’t forget to register first)
  • Arrangements for the payment of your funeral
  • What you want to say to everyone at your memorial, or direct messages for specific individuals

Step 8: Add complementary documents to your estate plan

With the four documents we’ve previously mentioned, you’ve now built a strong foundation for your estate plan. What’s next? Well, that’s up to you.

No matter what other goals you have in mind for your estate plans, LawDepot is here to help you achieve them. We have documents that can help you transfer property, plan for emergencies, take care of your kids, and more.

Gift Deed

Gifting a large sum of money or transferring the ownership of property? Use a Gift Deed Form to document the bequest.

In this case, the items or money you gift are no longer a part of your estate. As such, you can use a Gift Deed to keep family heirlooms or other precious treasures from being contested in your Last Will and Testament. Unlike with a Will, you can use a Gift Deed to transfer items to people while you’re still alive.

Keep in mind that if you make a gift to a registered charity in Canada you may be eligible to claim non-refundable tax credits.  

Just-in-Case Instructions

In an increasingly uncertain world, Just-In-Case Instructions are a wonderful way to maintain peace of mind. This document contains all the information about you and your estate that someone would need to take care of a wide range of tasks on your behalf.

Some of the useful information your Just-in-Case Instructions can include are as follows:

  • The contact information for your doctor, employer, and emergency contacts
  • Any relevant medical information, including prescriptions and insurance coverage
  • Details about your home address, including the location of keys and alarm system codes
  • Instructions for the care of your pets
  • Where to find essential documents such as birth certificates, passports, social insurance numbers, and your estate plans
  • How to access personal safes, deposit boxes, self-storage units, and electronic devices

Not only are these instructions handy in an emergency, but they can also be invaluable to the personal representatives that you appoint in your estate plans.

With kids, you never know when the next accident might happen. Make it easier for a caregiver to give consent to emergency treatments by signing a Child Medical Consent form. In this case, a babysitter, family member, or any other temporary guardian can get your child the care they need when you’re unavailable.

This document also contains important health information and medical histories for your kids. This way, health care professionals can quickly assess the situation and act when needed.

Step 9: Gather important physical and digital paperwork

Organizing your documents helps guarantee the smooth execution of your estate plans when the time comes.

Gather important documents such as:

  • Marriage, divorce, or separation papers
  • Kids’ birth certificates or adoption papers
  • Property deeds and titles
  • Business and investment share certificates

Put this paperwork in a safe place alongside your estate planning documents. If you have files stored digitally, be sure to keep instructions for locating these files.

Above all, let your personal representatives know where to find this paperwork. An organized estate plan with supporting paperwork can assist you and your representatives when proving ownership or relationship changes, or when dealing with other challenges to your estate. 

Step 10: Store your estate plans and inform your representatives

It’s a good idea to give copies of your estate plans to your personal representatives because it helps them understand and execute their responsibilities.

However, it’s crucial to store the original copy of each document in a safe place. In some instances, authorities will only accept the original document and not a copy (e.g., a Last Will and Testament). You can store your estate plans in a safety deposit box, trustee company, bank, or a locked filing cabinet in your home.

Don't forget to tell your representatives the codes or combinations to access the documents. You may also wish to include a list of passwords for your digital accounts, such as:

  • Social media accounts
  • Bank accounts
  • Online business or real estate portfolios

Updating your estate plan

Your situation is bound to change as the years pass by. So too may the goals you wish to achieve with your estate plan. That’s why it’s important to revisit your plan from time to time and make sure it’s up to date.

A plan that doesn’t reflect your current needs will have limited effectiveness. You should update your estate plan after major life events, such as:

Your estate plans are unique to you. They’re the blueprints of the legacy you want to leave behind. Now, make it happen.